What the Media Doesn't Show; or, Kimchi Is Not Actually Bad

Syria, 2003. No signs of fear--bad media day.
At a Korean luncheon for international women last week, I sat with a Singaporean and a Hungarian. Madam Hungary (who has sweated out a coup in Kenya and two Gulf wars in Saudi Arabia) had been musing on how the media skews our perception of peril. That, of course, brought up my standby story about how I first learned the power of the media:

We lived in Syria a dozen years ago. When we first set out for Damascus, my dad had grown uncharacteristically emotional, and I don’t think it was just because he was going to miss us. I think he was genuinely afraid that we were going to have our throats slit or fall victim to a suicide bomber.

To be honest, I didn’t think those scenarios were entirely unlikely. But for both of us the biggest fear was not so much for my husband and me but for the seven-month-old baby we were bringing along. She was 50 percent of my dad’s grandbabies back then.

Our experience in Syria was unforgettable, in good ways and bad. On the good days we spent time with friends and explored the country. On the bad days we holed up in our sweltering apartment and watched Al-Jazeera on television, trying (usually ineffectively) to follow the Arabic but getting the gist of world news mostly from the images.

After months passed and the time for our departure approached, our Syrian friends expressed their dismay at our decision to return to the U.S. “Why don’t you stay here?” they asked. “You have a baby to consider, after all. . . . Aren’t you afraid to raise her in a dangerous country like the U.S.?”

If this question had been posed to me at the beginning of our time in Syria, I would have laughed. Or, if I were in a more polite mood, I’d have logged it in my mental list of party stories—right next to the one where I describe my home state of Idaho as being “near California.”

But I didn’t laugh. Instead, my stomach spun. They were right, I worried. I did have a baby to consider. Syria was eerily safe (that's the upside of repressive dictatorships), and the U.S. honestly was so full of guns and fighting, immorality, law breaking, and deceit. Hadn’t I seen dozens of news spots showing real footage—indisputable evidence—of the hazards inherent in living in the U.S.? The thought of taking my baby there honestly did make me think twice about leaving Syria.

This is the part in my story where I stop and laugh incredulously, because of course the U.S. isn’t as dangerous as Al-Jazeera made it appear. Although news footage of America's dangers abound, as an American I have never seen such dangers. It’s only certain places that are dangerous, and certain activities that are fraught with peril. Obviously! But I had been completely taken in by what the media had portrayed as day-to-day life in the States, even as an American whose experience had proved that U.S. can indeed be a very safe place to grow up.

I realized at that moment, while sucking the kimchi from my teeth, that I’ve told this story only to Americans before. Otherwise, I would have been prepared for Madam Singapore’s sober response: “But the U.S. is dangerous! Everyone has guns. I would NOT want to live there.” I coughed.

Okay, so, cultural miscommunication on my part. My story obviously didn’t convey my intent. Madam Hungary stepped in graciously here to reaffirm that the media really does play tricks on our perceptions. The truth is that the places that the media makes out to be dangerous are often more regular than irregular. Outside of the pockets of unrest or disaster, people are getting on with their lives—buying groceries, having birthday parties, attending college classes, going to work. The media doesn’t show us the stuff that would give us a balanced view of reality; it shows us the stuff that will keep us tuned in.

I'd never eaten kimchi before that Korean luncheon, perhaps partially because whenever I'd heard the word it was always wrapped up in the phrase "bad kimchi." But you know what? It wasn't bad at all.